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Tens of thousands of Thai opposition protesters occupied major streets in central Bangkok on Monday in an attempted "shutdown" of the capital.
Tens of thousands of Thai opposition protesters occupied major streets in central Bangkok on Monday in an attempted "shutdown" of the capital, escalating a campaign to unseat the embattled premier.
The demonstrators want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign to make way for an appointed government that would oversee electoral reforms to curb the political dominance of her billionaire family and tackle a wider culture of money politics.
Thousands of flag-waving protesters, some wearing T-shirts with slogans such as "Bangkok Shutdown" and "Thai Uprising 2014", massed at key intersections in the city, including outside a major shopping mall that was set on fire during deadly political unrest in 2010.
Police and soldiers kept a low profile as the "Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand" drive got under way in the city of about 12 million people, and the mood among protesters was festive, with many singing and dancing in the streets.
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The protesters have vowed to occupy parts of the capital until they win their fight. They have vowed to disrupt a February election, saying it will only return Thaksin's allies to power without reforms first.
A hardcore faction of the anti-government movement has also threatened to besiege the stock exchange and even the kingdom's air traffic control if Yingluck does not step down within days.
"In a way there is no turning back for the protesters — they have come too far," he added.
The upheaval is the latest chapter in an eight-year conflict pitting Bangkok's middle class establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of Yingluck and her self-exiled brother, billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin was ousted by the army in 2006 and sentenced to jail in absentia for abuse of power in 2008, but the former telecoms tycoon still looms large over Thai politics and is the dominant force behind his sister's administration from his home in Dubai.
In a bid to end the unrest, Yingluck — who has a commanding majority in parliament — called a snap election for February 2. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has rejected the poll, which Yingluck's Puea Thai Party would probably win.
As the blockade began to bite, Yingluck invited the protest leaders and political parties for a meeting on Wednesday to discuss an Election Commission proposal to postpone the vote, according to a senior aide of the prime minister.
However, the protesters are determined to install an appointed "people's council" to change the electoral system and bring in other reforms to weaken Thaksin's sway.
"This won't end easily, and the turnout today is impressive, so it seems this deadlock looks set to continue," said Sukum Nuansakul, a political analyst and former dean at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University.
"Suthep has said he won't negotiate with the government, yet the government said today it will try to invite all warring parties to the table. The protest group's aims to overhaul the political system in this country won't happen overnight. This could be just the beginning."
Eight people, including two police officers, have been killed and scores wounded in violence between protesters, police and government supporters since the campaign against Yingluck's government started in November.
Shootings were reported overnight near a government administrative complex that protesters began to blockade late on Sunday and at the headquarters of the opposition Democrat Party, which has thrown in its lot with the protest movement.
At one junction, near the American and Japanese embassies, around 100 protesters sat on the road to halt traffic. Som Rodpai, 64, said they would leave after nightfall, amid fears their citywide protest could spark a violent reaction.
The government has deployed 10,000 police to maintain law and order, along with 8,000 soldiers at government offices.